By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
Ryan Harrow’s mystery illness. Alex Poythress’ effort. Kyle Wiltjer’s (lack of) defense. Willie Cauley-Stein’s knee injury. Archie Goodwin’s lack of control. Individual issues have plagued the Cats this year, preventing them from gelling the way fans and media anticipated at the start of the season.
“I’m disappointed, Big Blue Nation, but I like my team and I believe we can still turn the corner,” UK head coach John Calipari said Thursday on CoachCal.com.
Recent NBA mock drafts still have up to four Cats as lottery picks next year. There is no other team that has that level of top-tier talent.
Despite all of that individual ability, however, the Cats have yet to put it all together and perform consistently as a team. The Cats are 12-6, with a 1-5 record against teams ranked in the top 100 of the NCAA RPI.
With Tuesday’s upset loss at Alabama, the Cats are desperate for quality wins and must avoid any further surprise losses the rest of the season. Calipari has essentially used a seven-player rotation since SEC play began. (Junior guard Jarrod Polson is averaging just 6.6 minutes per game.) Let’s take a look at those seven.
Sophomore guard Ryan Harrow Harrow came down with a mystery illness as the season started and did not fully regain his spot as starting point guard until the Cats hosted Lipscomb on Dec. 15.
He has scored in double figures every game since returning to the starting lineup, except for Tuesday’s game at Alabama, averaging 14.1 points per game during that stretch.
Harrow has struggled handling the ball and getting other players involved since conference play began. He had a 3.4 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio in non-conference play, but is at just 1.5 to 1 in SEC play.
Calipari has said that Harrow has spent extra time in the gym, working to encourage and gain the trust of his teammates. For the Cats to finish strong in the SEC, Harrow will have to be a vocal leader that helps to create shots for his teammates.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress “Alex is just the motor. We’ve got to get him to understand how hard on every possession you must play. When we get him there, he will be scary,” Calipari said about Poythress — in mid-September.
The bad news is that it is late January and the Cats are still wondering if Poythress will compete hard every possession. After the win at Auburn, Calipari thought that Poythress was making advances.
“Now we have to keep him rolling in that direction. He is playing three minutes at a time so he can just sustain that energy and get in the habit,” Calipari said about him on Monday.
Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer Wiltjer was abused mercilessly in the SEC opener at Vanderbilt. His defense was exploited, as the Commodores consistently isolated him and took him off the dribble repeatedly and the Cats barely held on to a much-needed win.
Offensively, Wiltjer was non-existent, scoring two combined points in the first two SEC games of the season. Not scoring and not defending, it was tough to see him getting many minutes in future games.
Wiltjer fooled everyone by hitting the gym and working out some of the kinks and is now playing with unbelievable confidence. “Kyle’s effort level has been off the charts,” Calipari said Monday.
Wiltjer has led the Cats in scoring three consecutive games and should have been more of a factor in the second half against Alabama. A few more touches for Wiltjer could have stemmed the tide and earned the Cats a win in Tuscaloosa.
Freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein had started five games in a row before going down because of a nagging knee injury.
In what was described as a “minor” procedure to clean up an injury that had been present since middle school, Cauley-Stein has missed the past two games.
His status has been described as day-to-day. The Cats need him back, but need him back healthy. Depth became a big issue for the Cauley-Steinless Cats against Alabama, something that became apparent thanks to Poythress’ foul trouble.
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin The Cats can’t beat a quality opponent if Goodwin decides to continually drive and shoot one against three and finishes the game shooting 2-of-12.
Since Harrow’s return to the staring lineup, the Cats are 3-0 when Goodwin shoots fewer than 10 times in a game, and just 3-3 when Goodwin shoots 10 times or more.
In those losses, Goodwin is shooting a dreadful 32.1 percent from the field. Goodwin can create and get to the rim better than anyone else on the roster, but for the Cats to be good he has to also find his teammates and stop forcing shots in traffic that have very little chance to go in.
Until he thinks pass first, this team will struggle. He has a greater opportunity to turn this team around than any other player at this point.
Graduate student guard Julius Mays Calipari wanted Mays to provide 3-point shooting and leadership. After going 4-of-5 behind the arc against Alabama on Tuesday, Mays is up to 35.8 percent 3-point shooting.
Leadership? At this point in the season, nobody can easily define who the leader of this team is. Mays never hurts the team while he is on the floor.
He does, however, have a difficult time hitting the shots he doesn’t take. The one criticism is that he has a bad habit of passing up open looks. The team needs him to take, and hit, open jump shots when the opportunity arises.
Freshman forward Nerlens Noel Noel has been the model of consistency in both effort and performance. He is just half a rebound a game away from AVERAGING a double-double, and that doesn’t even summarize the way he stuffs the stat sheet.
He leads the Cats in rebounds, blocked shots, steals, posterizing dunks and floor burns. His post-up offensive game still needs some work, but with so many other potential scorers on the floor that shouldn’t be holding the Cats back right now.
Noel is a sure NBA lottery pick and potential No. 1 draft pick this year. He will play seven more games as a Cat in Rupp Arena. Enjoy watching him play while you can.